Greek & Hebraic Views of the Spirit
Lutherans today are concerned with an over-spiritualizing of the Spirit that denies the hypostatic union of Christ, denies the sacramental presence of Christ in Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, denies the resurrection of the body, and denies heaven as a material place. Concerning the hypostatic union it is important to confess with the Councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon the complete union of the divine and human natures in the one person of Christ. This also assumes the complete union of the Holy Spirit with the human nature of Christ. Through the incarnation we see that the Holy Spirit is not immune to material means for accomplishing His purposes. Rather, we see that the second person of the Trinity became a human being with real flesh and bones. At the same time He was the Bearer of the Spirit. God came down for us men and for our salvation. This incarnational framework sets the tone for our understanding of the sacraments. In Baptism and the Lord’s Supper our spirits do not ascend to God. Conversely, the resurrected Christ miraculously comes to us by the Spirit in the material waters of baptism, and in bread and wine. God the Holy Spirit uses these means to forgive us our sins and grant us life. If one separates the Holy Spirit from material means, the hypostatic union of Christ and the sacramental presence are not possible. Additionally, through Baptism and the Lord’s Supper man looks forward to a full resurrection of his body and a reunion of his body and spirit. If the Holy Spirit was immune to physical bodies, then we would have no hope of a reunion of our bodies with our spirits. Just as Christ was raised from the dead physically, so also Christians will be raised from the dead. So often we hear of Christians denying a future bodily resurrection and looking forward to a soul rest in heaven. This is sad! So much more awaits God’s children in the resurrection of the body! The intermediate state between our death and Advent of Christ is not our final destination. Rather, when Christ comes again in glory to judge the living and the dead, Christians will receive real and glorified bodies. Additionally, this physical creation will be renewed and restored. Our eschatological hope is not in something that is ethereal or insubstantial. Rather it will be a real place; our creation restored! Conceptions of the Spirit that deny the hypostatic union of Christ (Nestorius), deny the sacramental presence of Christ in the sacraments (Reformed), deny the resurrection of the body (Gnostics, Jesus Seminar and other Liberal Christians), and deny the materialness of heaven (Doug Pagitt) are harmful to the faith. In these situations, the Hebraic concept of the Spirit is definitely preferred.
When is it helpful to think of the Spirit as incorporeal? In St. Basil’s treatise on the Holy Spirit we see that he applies the Spirit as incorporeal in his exposition of John 4. In this situation it was helpful to conceive of the Spirit as incorporeal because the Samaritan woman was attempting to confine God’s presence to a place He had not confined it to. Jesus responded by saying that God is spirit, meaning he is not confined and limited to one place. In situations where people attempt to confine the activity of God to a place not ordained by Him, it is salutary to emphasize the Greek conception of the Spirit. For example, when the Churches of Christ (Boston Movement) teach that baptism in their church building is necessary for salvation they are limiting the Spirit’s work to their local building. Further, at the Roman Catholic Basilica in St. Louis it is written publicly that if one enters the basilica for worship on the same date on the calendar that the Pope visited the basilica in the past then that person will receive a plenary indulgence. This limits the Spirit’s work to a local basilica on a certain day (and it makes salvation dependent on following the shadow of the Pope)! With conceptions of the Spirit such as these that limit the Spirit’s presence to local buildings and locations, it is salutary to conceive of the Spirit as incorporeal.
If I had to give priority to the Hebrew or Greek conception of the Spirit, I would choose the Hebraic. First, our context is becoming increasingly more and more “spiritual.” Concepts like karma, meditation, and prayer are becoming more and more popular without connection to Jesus Christ. People want to be spiritual today, but they do not want to be connected to Christ and His Church. They are looking to be spiritual without the means of grace which give the Holy Spirit. People like to tap into the spiritual realm, but they better be careful they do not tap into the demonic realm. Second, I believe that the Hebraic concept does more justice to the narrative of Scripture. In Scripture our God uses means. He uses the body of Christ to redeem the world. He uses water to regenerate. He uses bread and wine to forgive people their sins. He will come again to raise all the dead and restore all of creation. Our hope is not in a place that is immaterial but in a place that is real and physical. However, what matters the most is not what conception of the Spirit one prefers. What matters is what a person does with their conception of the Spirit.